They Should Know Better, But…

I have often wondered whether football clubs employ only people with no sense or if only people with no sense try to get jobs at football clubs.  Time after time, clubs, particularly very wealthy clubs, go after players who had already proved that despite their talent, their tenures would inevitably end badly.  Manchester City is probably the most egregious recent example with Robinho, Tevez and Balotelli all coming and exploding in spectacular fashion.  City is not the only offender though; off the top of my head I can think of very prominent flops at Barcelona and AC Milan, and there are many more (Brazilian clubs are equally bad).  I could have called every single one of those failures (and often did) even with my limited football experience.  How come if I can see it, then people who spend their lives around the game cannot?

Liverpool FC is definitely run by the football foolish.  Not just for the Suarez/racism debacle, or for overspending for untested players simply because they are British, or for letting the fans make the important decisions, or for keeping Kenny Dalglish as coach even though he hadn’t been a coach in about two decades.  Liverpool’s follies could fill an entire book let alone one paragraph of one blog post.

But this story caught my eye.  Now that Damien Comolli is no longer the director of football at Liverpool, owner John W. Henry is considering none other than Johan Cruyff.  Yes, that one.  Now in fairness, this is a story that came out of Soccernet (that most reliable of sources), and even according to the story Cruyff is not the only man under consideration.  Among the others under consideration are Louis van Gaal and Txiki Begiristain (both of whom, like Cruyff, have a Barcelona connection).  But Cruyff is the standout name.  He would be an utter disaster.

Now you may be thinking about Cruyff’s admirable record as coach and wondering if I am crazy.  He had some success with Ajax in the mid-80’s and then brought Barcelona to its greatest pre-Guardiola era ever.  Under Cruyff Barcelona won its first European Cup.  He gave Barcelona Guardiola.  More importantly, he instilled his philosophy in Barcelona, a philosophy that two decades later birthed this current team of legends.  In some ways, this is a good position for him; as director of football, most of his glaring managerial deficiencies such as hubris and a lack of tactical acumen (ironic given his role in Total Football) would not be an issue.

But Cruyff is still wrong for Liverpool for one simple reason: his ego.  Now there are other good reasons he would be awful: his dedication, his temperament, his lack of recent experience (apparently not a problem for Liverpool), the fact that his philosophy doesn’t fit in to the English/British game, his dislike of the English/British game, and the fact that his philosophy requires a long view and patience which do not jibe well with the modern money-based, instant gratification game of the present day.  Sure Liverpool need some kind of change, but Cruyff’s vision is too radical.

But it is his ego that will ensure he is a horrible fit for Liverpool.  Cruyff is a very cranky old man who demands nothing short of total devotion, and he takes umbrage and vengeance against those who oppose him.  Ask the former Ajax board of directors.  If Liverpool were willing to cede him total control than maybe, just maybe, it would be a workable fit.  But that is never going to happen, and Kenny Dalglish is the reason.  At Ajax and Barcelona, Cruyff is a legend, almost a deity, and was before he managed the clubs.  What would he be at Liverpool where he never had any connections?  And what happens when he inevitably clashes with Dalglish, whose philosophy is almost the complete polar opposite of Cruyff’s?  When push comes to shove, the fans will choose King Kenny over Cruyff every time.  And the fans control at Liverpool.  If Cruyff becomes director of football, it will be a miracle if he lasts a year.

Cruyff at Liverpool is insanity.  The foolish delusions of a senseless old man who refuses to accept reality.  In other words, the exact kind of person that a football club hires.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

And speaking of foolish old men, Pele has spoken again, and that is never a good thing.  Because Pele is a jealous god, he cannot handle the plaudits that Lionel Messi receives week in and week out.  This is not a new thing, and I’ve written about it before.  Pele’s latest dart is that Messi is not only not the greatest player ever, he’s not even as good a player as Neymar (who plays for Pele’s old club Santos.  What are the odds?).  Never mind that Neymar himself would say that Messi is better right now–no doubt all the more so since the humbling of Santos at the Club World Cup.

Because Pele had an opinion, it was inevitable that Maradona would get involved to (1) defend Messi and (2) attack Pele.  Maradona called Pele “stupid” because El Diego has such a way with words.  Messi v. Neymar is really just another way to have Pele v. Maradona Round MIV.  It’s the song that never ends.

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Messi Versus Neymar

For the past four years or so, the big media “debate” has been whether Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo is the better player.  It’s not a battle that the players have participated in (Messi couldn’t care less), yet it has been argued around the world.  The truth though is that except for Real Madrid (club and fans), its mouthpieces Marca and AS, certain segments of the British media, some random idiots who refuse to accept reality, and the nation of Portugal, the Messi/Ronaldo debate was decisively settled last season–perhaps earlier.  The truth is that the Messi v. Ronaldo comparisons tend to come out only around Los Clásicos and then sink away again.  During the rest of the year, the majority of the world accepts the fact that Messi is the superior player who will go down in history as one of the all-time greats.

In Brazil, the press has completely forgotten about Cristiano Ronaldo.  In Brazil they have no time for Cristiano Ronaldo because in Brazil, they have Neymar.  The Brazilian press knows Messi is the best player in the world; in a fit of nationalist pique they propped up their own starlet and turned him into something that he is not.  Pele, that shameless hack, has given his imprimatur to the charade by declaring that Neymar is better than Messi.  However, while a football ignorant audience that doesn’t know any better and a Brazilian audience that wants to delude itself may accept Pele’s pronouncements at face value, the rest of the world knows that Pele cannot be trusted.  if he tells you the sky is blue, check for yourself (or as Sid Lowe so succinctly, eloquently, and accurately put it on The Guardian‘s December 15, 2011 Football Weekly podcast “Pele doesn’t know shit!”).

The Brazilian obsession with Neymar is so packed with psychological baggage, that it would take a Ministry of Therapy to sort it out, and none of it has to do with him being actually better than Messi.  (Whether or not Santos wins this weekend, Barcelona is still the best team in the world.  Sorry.)  I’ll try to unpack the baggage a little, but I make no promises about being comprehensive.

First, Neymar is a teenage phenomenon from Santos–Pele’s club!  Every Santos teenager who could kick a ball anywhere near a net has been tagged with the “next Pele” label, but Neymar spearheaded his team to a Copa Libertadores win, which only compounds the pressure.

Second, Brazil, still thinking it is the world’s greatest footballing nation, desperately wants the world’s top player to be a Brazilian.  Ronaldinho squandered his ability in spectacular fashion, Kaka was always a stopgap measure, and Robinho never lived up to his promise.  Ronaldo ain’t coming back.

Third, Neymar plays in Brazil, and this cannot be underestimated.  Brazilians feel deeply insecure that their league is second-tier behind Europe.  The fans demand their players go abroad but then resent them for leaving (calls for an only home-based national team surface every World Cup.)  The Club World Cup means so much to them–more, I would wager, than the Copa Libertadores–because their best gets to play the best from Europe.  Brazil’s league has gotten stronger in the last few years, but it is nowhere near Western Europe.  Santos may be able to keep Neymar and Paolo Henrique Ganso for now, but that won’t last forever.  If those two players want to be considered among the elite, they need to play in Europe.  They know it, and so do the Brazilian fans in their heart of hearts.

Finally, Messi is Argentinian.  It eats into the souls of Brazilian fans that the best player in the world is a native son of their national team’s greatest rival.  Messi v. Neymar is a replay of the tedious Pele v. Maradona arguments that have plagued the sport and continue to do so.  The difference though is that Pele/Maradona is a legitimate argument (sort of) whereas Messi/Neymar is not.

For all these reasons, Neymar has been propped up to levels that he hasn’t merited.  Whatever he may be, and he has the talent, he is that not now.  He is untested at the highest level, i.e. a competition where a better class of defenders will get in his face and where the referee will not award him a foul every time he throws himself on the ground.   His deification is a sign of Brazilian insecurity, arrogance, and nationalism mixed together, and the European media has fallen for it hook, line, and sinker.

The Club World Cup will not make Neymar the best player in the world.  In four years or so we can reevaluate his position.  Until then, he is a terrific footballer, and a worldwide brand in the making.  But he is not Messi.

Pele’s Take On Lionel Messi

In case you perchance doubted what I said about Pele, here is even more proof that the old man feels threatened.

“Messi better than Pele? To get there he needs to score more than 1283 goals,”

and

“Neymar has great talent. I hope Neymar doesn’t end up like Messi, who plays so well for his club but does nothing for his country.”

Putting aside that Pele’s goal total is very dubious, unlike Maradona, Messi doesn’t really care about this greatest of all time business.  He just wants to play and win.  (Pele was never particularly liked by his teammates.)  Pele is doing his legacy no favors.  Although he will be always be at the front of the Greatest Ever debate, he is simultaneously making himself into something of a worldwide joke.

All the old legends should learn from Eusebio.  Behave with dignity while you play.  Exit with dignity afterwards.  Maintain dignity always.

Update: Looks like the most recent famous Santos alum needed to get in on the raging jealousy act.  Robhino is so delightfully saying, “Another Pele will not be born.”  Hide the green eyes, Robinho, but don’t worry.  The way that Neymar dives, he’ll just be another you.

An Open Letter to Neymar

Dear Neymar,

Congratulations on winning the Copa Libertadores.  You are on your way to Superstardom, although you didn’t need to win the Libertadores for that.  Congratulations to you for helping bring Santos its greatest prize in nearly 50 years.  Santos is one of the truly legendary clubs in South American (and world football in general), and they have been away from the top for too long.  And congratulations for making the Club World Cup in December, where no doubt you will take on Barcelona.

You clearly have great potential, because already the great ones are talking about you.  Maradona is insulting you (or maybe he’s not.)  But what really concerns me is that Pele is giving you advice.  Run. Run the opposite way.  Run far and run fast.  Pele has no interest in helping you.  In fact, he is probably secretly devastated that Santos won the Copa Libertadores.  Pele will not accept anyone impinging on his legacy, especially a Brazilian, and even more so a Santos player.  He may smile and talk sweetly, but all the while he will try to stab you in the back.

I admit that I am a Barcelona fan, but that is not why I am advising against moving to Madrid.  In the whole of Brazil you are now the biggest fish.  At Madrid you may not even get off the bench.  You want to be known as the best. Better than Messi?  You have the Club World Cup and the Copa America to prove it.  Madrid was a disaster for your idol Robinho.  Now it is Cristiano Ronaldo’s club, and he will not allow interlopers, especially ones who think they are better than he is.  He will make sure that you never outshines him.  Stay in Brazil, at least until January 2012.  Then if you want to go to Madrid, all power to you.  But beware of Pele’s advice.  He is always wrong, and there is a reason for that.
Sincerely,

Solitary Muser

On Pele

For years, if you asked an average American who was generally unfamiliar with world football to name one soccer player, more likely than not he would say Pele (pronouncing the name PAY-lay.)  Although perhaps now he knows of David Beckham, I imagine that to the uninitiated, Pele is still the most recognizable name, so much so that Pele, who had been retired for decades, could feature in a commercial with the teenaged American player Freddy Adu.

In America, Brazil, and most of the English-speaking world Pele is generally considered the greatest player to ever kick a ball.  However, that is a highly contentious claim.  Of course Brazilians would say that Pele is the greatest.  However, excluding the UK, in the most prominent English-speaking nations, football (soccer) is a niche sport, fanatically worshiped by the few and largely ignored by the masses.  Therefore, familiarity with other great players is limited.  It is a testament to Pele’s skill as both a player and a self-promoter that although he has not played a competitive match in almost three and a half decades, he still garners such universal esteem and even awe.

It is impossible to determine whether Pele was the greatest player of all time although the argument never ends.  Certainly Diego Maradona can (and does) dispute that.  But football is not short of players (or their devotees) who could claim be the greatest ever; Alfredo Di Stefano, Garrincha, Johan Cruyff, Michel Platini, Franz Beckenbauer, and most recently Lionel Messi are just a few of the most prominent names.  That is by no means an exhaustive list.

Undoubtedly Pele was one of history’s greatest players even if he was not the greatest ever.  He is the only player in history to have won three World Cup titles (although his contributions to the 1962 effort were limited by injury, and that tournament was dominated by Garrincha.)  In the early 1960’s, along with his club Santos, Pele dominated South America and bested the top European clubs and players.  Although YouTube can make any journeyman look like a world beater, in Pele’s case old video excerpts only just begin to tell the tale.  He is one of history’s top goal scorers, although his stated tally of 1281 goals is somewhat dubious.  Because of Pele, it is a high honor (and often tremendous pressure) when a player wears the squad number 10 for club or country.

All of this however overlooks Pele’s other amazing ability, his genius for marketing himself–an arena where he is utterly without peer.  To understand how and why this talent emerged, one must go back to Pele’s beginnings in a poverty-stricken city in the state of São Paulo.  Pele grew up under the shadow of two tragedies that shaped his personal and footballing identity.  The first was the Maracanazo, the Brazilian national team’s loss to Uruguay at the 1950 World Cup, a loss that shattered the nation’s collective psyche.  The second, a far more personal tragedy, was the end his father’s promising football career because of injury and the resulting impoverishment of the family.

In some ways, Pele was the right person in the right place at the right time.  He was the emergent star of the 1958 Brazilian World Cup arguably the greatest national side of all time.  Pele also benefited tremendously by the growing popularity of television throughout his career.  There were great players before him, but television showed a gawky, sweet teenager who scored goals like this and then collapsed into tears when his team finally exorcised the ghosts of 1950.  Pele became the symbol of his nation’s football redemption in Brazil and the epitome of o jogo bonoito to the rest of the world.  He was his sport’s first international superstar and across the world his image, that of a smiling, samba-dancing, football genius, is indelible.

The way Pele created and controlled that image was a direct result of growing up in extreme poverty.  Pele’s business since he achieved worldwide fame has been his own brand, so much so that it is as much a truth to speak of Pele, Inc. as the man himself.  Pele was much more aware of the power of his image than the rest of his 1958 teammates.  He got an agent and became obsessive about money.  This is not to say however that he spent his money wisely or trusted the right people.

After the mid-1960’s, Santos became the football version of the Harlem Globetrotters rather than an actual competitor just to pay Pele’s salary.  The New York Cosmos too built a wildly successful brand around Pele’s star power even though he had retired from football and was long past his best days.*   In comparison, Pele’s great Brazilian teammate Garrincha–the joy of the people, the angel with bent legs–died in a haze of alcoholism and poverty.

After Pele has finished playing completely, he found a role in world football that is truly unique.  Some former greats go into coaching, others become part of their club’s hierarchy, and a rare few go into FIFA or other political positions.  Still others disappear entirely or, like Garrincha, follow the path of self-destruction.  Pele has done some of that, but mostly he has made himself football’s ambassador to the world, the living avatar of a sport.  As such, the football powers-that-be turn to him for their own relevance.

Because Pele is professionally the Greatest Ever, he has fashioned himself into the authoritative voice on all things football and greatness.  But because there can only be one greatest ever, Pele has to protect his brand.  Therefore, since retiring, Pele’s full-job has been to jealously guard his own legacy.**

Pele knows himself to be the greatest player in history, and never thinks otherwise.  Although he may tell worldwide audiences that so-and-so is the greatest player he ever saw (name that country, and that’s whose hero is the greatest player he ever saw), but it is all smoke and mirrors.  Unlike Maradona who (often to his detriment) speaks his perceived version of the truth, Pele tells people what they want to hear.  Yet by propping others up, Pele actually cements his own status as the greatest ever.  For example, if Pele were to go to Northern Ireland and tells an audience that George Best was the most talented player he ever saw, the sports pages in Belfast the next day will say the following: “Pele, the greatest player in the world, called our own George Best the most talented player he ever saw.”  Pele has named so many different most talented players he ever saw that one would think anyone who kicked a ball is a world beater.  Despite setting himself as the football sage, he is really a snake oil salesman.

This is not to say that he cannot recognize talent.  You can tell when Pele feels his legacy is threatened, because that is when the knives come out.  His running feud with Maradona reached the point of embarrassment years ago, and now it is just ridiculous.  Recently, Pele has seen a new threat on the horizon, and he is alarmed.  Messi scares him.  More accurately, the accolades that Messi merits terrify Pele.  Two years ago when Barcelona won the Sextuple and entered the “greatest ever” conversation (along with his own 1970 World Cup squad), Pele piped up to say that without sustained brilliance they could not be considered.

Now Messi is being feted by many as the greatest ever, and Pele cannot have that.  Whereas Maradona has embraced Messi as “the new Maradona”, Pele trashes the young Argentine to the press.  Prior to the Champions League final, Pele claimed that Javier Hernandez, United’s Mexican striker could be the next Messi.  Hernandez has the making of a great player, but the next Messi he is not.  Pele is not so much propping up Hernandez though as tearing down Messi–if a contemporary could reach Messi’s level, then Messi’s level is not so great as Pele’s.

The other claim that Pele makes about Messi (and expect more of this following Barcelona’s Champions League victory) is that he does not play well for the Argentinian national team.  This claim is not true although it has a surprising durability.  Messi plays brilliantly for the Albiceleste.  He did not score at the World Cup, but he was the force behind most of Argentina’s goals.  Additionally, football is a team sport; no one does it alone.  Messi was surrounded by a decent offense, a middling defense, and a terrible manager.  Had Messi played for Spain, he would have his World Cup, and Pele would say that Messi would need to win another two before he could be considered the greatest ever.

Pele has done this before, usually with Brazilians (Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, etc.)  When they are a real threat, Pele subtly puts them down–and smiles when they fail.  When they have no chance of surpassing him or can make him look good (such as when they come out of Santos), then he props them up.  If Neymar lives up to the hype, expect to hear from a happy Pele.  If Neymar exceeds the hype, expect to hear from a defensive Pele.

This is not to put down Pele; he is a legend of the game.  He is however, far more complex than his media image.  It is important to recognize exactly what is true and what is false.  And to always question what he says.

 

Footnotes:

*  The Cosmos are still trying to recapture that magic in 2011.  They have named Pele an honorary president and are using him to promote their entry into MLS–all without actually having a team.

**  FIFA in particular needs Pele to be recognized as the greatest ever because of his compliance to work with FIFA.  When awarding a “Greatest Player of the Century”, FIFA foolishly turned the voting over to the general public via the Internet assuming Pele would get the nod.  The general public chose Diego Maradona, a player who (unike Pele) most of the voters saw play in his prime.  Alarmed by the result, FIFA created a panel of experts to award a second Greatest Ever title to Pele.  This only disgraced everyone involved.

1950: The Game Of Their Lives And The More Interesting Story

Two weeks ago I watched “The Game of Their Lives” (distributed on DVD as “The Miracle Match”, but I will go by the original title) about the United States Football Team’s shock victory over England at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil.  As a fan of the World Football Phone-In, it was great to see Tim Vickery on screen (and I guess also Sean Wheelock, although his role was kind of unnecessary.)  The movie is mediocre, and got quite a bit wrong–particularly the insulting “noble savage” image of Joe Gaetjens, the Haitian national who scored the winning goal (Voodoo?  Really?).  Because this is Hollywood, the English had to be made into villains.  The character assassination of poor Stan Mortensen (portrayed by Gavin Rossdale) would be laughable if it were not outright slanderous.

The United States team’s upset of England in 1950 was epic.  As I mentioned in a previous post, even when I knew nothing about the beautiful game, I knew about this victory.  However, the match was no Miracle on Ice.  For one thing, the Americans lost their other two group matches and finished at the bottom of the group.  For another, despite its magnitude, the upset did nothing in the long term for football in America.  The United States would not return to the World Cup for 40 years.

The United States actually had performed well at the World Cup before 1950.  The Americans placed third at the first World Cup in 1930.  Granted there were at least five or six Brits on the 1930 squad (mostly expatriate Scots.)  And also granted almost all of Europe’s strongest teams did not participate.  That should not however, take away from the fact that the United States was at one time, very much a participant in the world’s game.  Despite what The Game of Their Lives would have its audience believe, the 1950 United States squad was not some makeshift team of players with no international experience (or knowledge of the World Cup) called up a week before the tournament started.  In 1950, just as today, national squads have to qualify for the World Cup.  Some of the players had represented the United States at the 1948 Olympics.  This is not to say that the Americans were of the same caliber as the rest of the world.  It just means that the movie tried too hard to make the 1950 team like the 1980 Olympic Hockey Team by underplaying the Americans’ experience.

As I mentioned above, the movie turned Stan Mortensen into a pantomime villain.  In the movie Mortensen toasts to the American squad after playing them (and beating them) while on an exhibition tour in the United States with a team of players not good enough to make the England squad.  Mortensen’s “toast” was a barely disguised put down of Americans for being too stupid to appreciate the subtleties of football and cricket.  This scene is meant to rouse the patriotic fervor in the (American) audience and to reward with the satisfaction of Mortensen’s and England’s inevitable fall.  Here is the biggest problem with Mortensen’s toast: it never happened and it never would.  First, it never happened because Mortensen was not in the United States for that exhibition tour.  Second, Mortensen, who was born into a working-class family in a town near Newcastle upon Tyne, would never have given that speech even if he had the opportunity.

The movie beats its audience over the head with the fact that Stan Mortensen was the greatest player of the century if not all time.  This was simply not true.  Mortensen was undoubtedly a great English player.  He is to date the only player ever to score a hat trick in an FA Cup final (when his Blackpool team beat Bolton Wanderers in 1953.)  However, the movie conflated Mortensen with Sir Stanley Matthews, who was one of the greatest early players of the game.  It was Matthews who went on tour with that England B Team that beat the United States (although Matthews did not play that day.)

Stanley Matthews is a towering figure in English football.  Although he won exactly one major prize (the 1953 FA Cup), he is one of England’s greatest players.  So great and so beloved was Matthews that the 1953 FA Cup final is called “The Matthews Final” despite the fact that Mortensen scored that hat trick, and they both played for Blackpool.  Matthews was also known as one of the true gentlemen of the game.

So why did the movie basically ignore almost all existence of Sir Stanley Matthews?  Probably the main reason is that he did not play in the England/US match.  The movie makes exactly one mention of Matthews–the Americans find out that he is not playing because he is still in Rio de Janeiro (i.e. the match was not important enough to make the trip out to Belo Horizonte.)  Matthews actually was in Belo Horizonte for the match; he did not play for tactical reasons–a managerial mistake in hindsight.  Because the movie needed to play up the greatness of the English, the filmmakers could simply not acknowledge that England’s greatest player sat out.

The movie also overdid the whole “England are the greatest team in the world” bit (something the British press continues to do before every World Cup.)  Certainly England were among the bookmakers’ favorites.  The Brazilian crowd also feared England, and rooted for the Americans in the hopes that England would not advance.  But the truth is by 1950, the rest of the world had long since passed England (the only reason England did not realize it was because they always readymade excuses for losses–usually the weather.)  The loss to the Americans was humiliating, but did not change England’s view of itself.  England lost to Spain in the next match, thus ensuring they did not qualify for the next round.

The real dismantling of England’s inflated self-image came when Hungary’s Golden Team mauled the Three Lions at Wembly three years later.  With that loss, and the even more humiliating 7-1 loss to the Hungarians in Budapest in 1954, even the English had to admit they were bested.  They could not blame the heat for their shortcomings anymore (although it does continue to a popular myth to this day to explain why England underperform.)

The Americans and the English remember the 1950 World Cup for their encounter.  The rest of the world however, remembers 1950 for a far more dramatic and interesting match–the Maracanazo, the final contested by Brazil and Uruguay.  All Brazil needed to do to win the tournament was draw Uruguay (technically it was not the final because it was a round-robin match, but it was the de facto final as well as the last match of the tournament.)  Brazil expected to win.  The home crowd and the media expected the team to win.  The match was held in the Maracanã, the giant football stadium in Rio de Janeiro built specifically for the World Cup.  The mayor of Rio de Janeiro, before the match began, exalted the Brazilian team, calling them the victors.  The Uruguayans were so nervous that allegedly one team member wet himself during the pre-match lineup.

In the real biggest upset of 1950, Uruguay won the match 2-1.  The loss devastated the host nation.

The Maracanazo (“Maracanã blow”) was a national tragedy that haunted Brazil’s collective psyche.  The  Maracanã held somewhere around 200,000 people, maybe more, and some fans committed suicide following the loss.  The Brazilian writer Nelson Rodrigues made the following (overwrought) comparison: “Everywhere has its irremediable national catastrophe, something like a Hiroshima. Our catastrophe, our Hiroshima, was the defeat by Uruguay in 1950.”  Ironically, the second place finish in 1950 was Brazil’s best World Cup result to that date.

The loss deeply affected the Brazilians; to an extent they are still haunted by the Maracanazo.  God help the 2014 team if they do not win the World Cup, which will be held in Brazil.  The Maracanazo is still considered to be the saddest day in the country’s history (in that sense Brazil is fortunate; it never had a destructive war on home soil.)  Following the loss, the Brazilian people looked inward and tried to figure out why their national team could not beat Uruguay–the idea that Uruguay was better or played more effectively never seemed to come up.  They conveniently forgot that their team had won the South American Championships the year before and beat Uruguay 5-1.

The Maracanazo was proof, or so the Brazilians claimed, that they an inferior race because of their multi-racial makeup.*  Racism became the subtext of the loss.  Three players were blamed above all others: the defender Juvenal, the left-half Bigode, and more than anyone else, the goalkeeper Moacyr Barbosa.  All three were black.  The cruelty that was displayed toward Barbosa is, I believe, unparalleled in football. Barbosa was turned in a national scapegoat, a Dostoyevskyan punishment; he became an outcast and a pariah, not just from football, but from society.  Twenty years after the match, a woman in a shop spotted Barbosa and told her son (in front of the former goalkeeper) that Barbosa was “the man that made all of Brazil cry.”  Even as late as 1993, he was not let near the national team’s training camp because he was thought of as a jinx–Barbosa had not been forgiven even after Brazil won three World Cup titles (and was en route to a fourth).

Race is a complicated subject in football, especially in Brazil.  Because of 1950, general consensus held that blacks were not able to be goalkeepers (Dida was the first truly great black Brazilian goalkeeper to appear on the international scene after 1950.)  Black sports players in Brazil had, to that point, had a far easier path than in most other countries.  When football began in Brazil it was all white.  Slowly mixed-race players began to trickle through, although they were looked down upon.  The first great Brazilian footballer of note of any color, Arthur Friedenreich, was the son of a German businessman and a black washerwoman (herself a daughter of freed slaves, slavery having been abolished in the Kingdom of Brazil in 1888.)  Friedenreich used brillantine to flatten his hair.  Another mixed-race player who played for the club Fluminense whitened his face with rice powder (rice powder is still associated with Fluminense to this day.)  The Portuguese club Vasco da Gama was the first to open up its doors to black and mulatto players without reservation.  Following Vasco’s success in the early 1920’s the other clubs were forced to open up their doors too.  Once the doors were opened, black and mulatto players became integral to Brazilian club sides and the national team.  (For American audiences, this is well before Jackie Robinson.)

Following the 1950 World Cup, it was deemed that the national kit (white with blue trim) was not patriotic enough.  A contest was held for new designs.  The winner was a young man named Aldyr Garcia Schlee, who ironically preferred Uruguay over Brazil.  Nevertheless, the kit he designed (yellow jersey with green trim, blue shorts with white stripes, white socks) is the iconic uniform that Brazil still wear today.**

Despite the change in kit, Brazil actually had a worse showing at the 1954 World Cup.  They lost to Hungary’s Golden Team (4-2) in a match so ugly and violent it is known as “The Battle of Berne.”  Not until 1958 in Sweden did Brazil finally won their first World Cup.***  Brazil introduced the world to Jogo Bonito and to the nation’s two greatest players: Pelé, and Garrincha.  Pelé, who witnessed his father crying after the Maracanazo, swore that one day he would win the World Cup.  The 1958 side is possibly the greatest national side ever assembled, maybe greater than even the 1970 side.  The Brazilians question of race in sport receded–Pelé was black and Garrincha was of indigenous descent.  With mixed raced teams, Brazil became the world’s preeminent footballing nation, and to date has won more World Cups than any other country.

Please think of this should you ever watch The Game of Their Lives.  You are getting the American (and English) story, but missing out on the more interesting one.

Footnotes:

* The scapegoating of Barbosa, Juvenal, and Bigode, and the blame shifted to black players in general, was completely unwarranted.  Uruguay won international championships as far back as 1916 with squads that featured black players, including the great José Leandro Andrade.

** If you are interested in the Maracanazo and all the fallout in Brazil, and it is indeed a fascinating subject, read Alex Bellos’s book Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life.  A whole chapter is devoted to that one final.  The book is brilliant.

*** Ironically, Brazil did not wear their famous kit in the 1958 final.  They played Sweden (the home team), and the Swedes wore their national colors: yellow and blue.  The world did not really see Brazil play in their full technicolor brilliance until the 1970 World Cup.

The Messi Side of Football

I.  Introduction: Brazil v. Argentina

On November 17, 2010, I watched the Brazil National Football (Soccer) Team outplay traditional rival Argentina but lose 1-0.  The match was an international friendly held in Qatar; only prestige was on the line.  Argentina had not beaten Brazil since June 2005.  In fact of the five matches played between the 2005 victory and this one, Brazil won four and drew one, outscoring Argentina 13-2.  The winning goal in this most recent match was scored in stoppage time at the very end of the match.  It was scored by Lionel Messi, probably the greatest football player in the world.

II.  Football and Me: A Love-ish Story

My love of football (sorry fellow Americans, I reclaim this word for what you call soccer) is a relatively new thing, but my awareness of the game goes back to when I was seven years old.  My parents signed me up for a local league, and I played all of one match before quitting–Saturday cartoons were far more important.  In retrospect, I wish I could have slapped some sense into my younger self, but at time football did not seem like much fun.  It was the mid-1980’s when I turned my back on football.  At that time most Americans had yet not realized that the sport was not just some novelty game that little children played only until they were old enough to play a more American sport (or could get a college scholarship for playing.)

At some point between age 7 and 1994 I learned four, and only four, facts about football: (1) the rest of the world loved it, but Americans did not because it is boring and our sports are better; (2) there was some competition called the World Cup and Uruguay won the first World Cup; (3) Pele was the best player ever; and (4) in 1950 the United States won the World Cup by beating England 1-0, but the English thought they won 10-1.

Before I continue with this post, I feel I should deconstruct and correct these four “facts” for any soccer newbie.  (1) Football is indeed the world’s most popular sport.  It is not however, the most popular sport in every country.  As a whole, nations that had once been part of the British empire favor other sports such as cricket (India), rugby (New Zealand), ice hockey (Canada) or their own weird variation of football (Australia, the United States).  Given that England is the home of football (the word ‘soccer’ is British slang, a nickname for Association Football), maybe the former colonies’ preference for other sports is a form of imperial rejection.  Some of the Caribbean islands and Venezuela prefer baseball.  (This is wise for Venezuela.  If you play football in South America, there is far too much competition.  Better to learn another sport that your neighbors do not play.)  Also, football is a very interesting sport, but like any language, you have to learn it before you can understand it.  And although Americans experience a strong feeling of exceptionalism, Americans are in no way objectively better or no worse than football.  (2) This is true.  I have no idea how or why I knew that Uruguay won it, but I knew they did.  It may be the only thing I knew about Uruguay at the time.  (3)  Pele’s status as “the greatest ever” is very much debatable.  Argentinians will tell you it is Diego Maradona.  The sniping that goes on between Pele and Maradona because of their narcissism and jealousy is embarrassing, but they need the attention and newspapers love it.  More on this later.  (4) Please, please, please do not think the United States won in 1950!  They did beat England, and that did shock and embarrass the English players, people, and press, but the Unites States team did not even make it to the next round.  I have no idea where I learned such a ridiculously false fact except that I probably thought there would be no reason to care if the United States did not win.  For the record, Uruguay won in 1950 (again).

In 1994, the World Cup came to United States and for about a month Americans deeply cared about football.  Partially this was because the American sports calendar is at a lull during the World Cup.  Of the big three American sports (and ice hockey), only baseball is in season, and baseball has not yet reached its full intensity.  The 1994 World Cup was a big deal for the United States, as it is for every host, but it was a big deal in a different way.  Before 1994, every World Cup had been held in a nation that loved football.  Each nation already had its own professional league and an international team that carried the hopes of a nation.  The United States had no major league of its own, most of the players were not connected with a club (just contracted to the national team), and most importantly there was no real football culture and very little interest in starting one.  After 1950 the United States did not qualify for a World Cup until 1990.  So little faith was put in the United States team that they were expected to be the first hosts not to advance out of the first round.  Despite all this, the crowd support turned out to be excellent, and the United States did advance to the second round (at the expense of Colombia, which sadly cost Colombian defender Andres Escobar his life–probably the first time the American public were confronted with the deadliness of football.)  The success of the Americans led to the birth of Major League Soccer.  All the gains made by American football and American football culture are directly traceable to the 1994 World Cup.

Ironically by 1994 the American women had already won a World Cup–the 1991 Women’s World Cup in China.  For all the attention paid to the men’s team success in 1994, practically no one knew or cared about the triumph of the women’s team three years earlier.  It would not be until the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta when the women’s team won the gold medal that people started to notice.  In 1999, the United States Women’s National Team won the World Cup in front of a home crowd of 90,000, and, for a brief shining moment, Americans cared about women’s soccer.  This has yet to be repeated despite a track record that the U.S. men could only dream of.

III. Becoming a Brazilian Nut

One of the great joys of football fandom is rooting against the teams you hate.  It is a wonderful sensation of schadenfreude; all the more so at the national level–when a national team loses, an entire population is devastated.  There are so many good reason to hate a national team, not all of them necessarily football related.  For example, I detest the English media and take great joy in seeing England lose.  I cannot root for any team from a nation under totalitarian control.  Conversely, I root against the Italians for purely football reasons. The Italian team is made up of cheaters and divers; their World Cup victory in 2006 was like torture for me.  However, when they bombed at this year’s World Cup, I could not stop smiling for three days.

Sometimes tastes change.  I hated Brazil in 1994 for eliminating the United States (who played far above their talent level in that match) and I rooted against Brazil for the rest of the tournament.  Still bitter in 1998, I was glad when France crushed Brazil in that year’s final.  I rooted against Brazil all throughout the 2002 World Cup qualifications when the Brazilians almost missed out on qualifying.  I rooted against Brazil all tournament.  In the final match, however, Germany had become the focus of my ire for eliminating the United States in the quarterfinals, an unfair result given the way the Americans played (and I also rooted against Germany because I am Jewish–an irrational hatred that I no longer feel.)  For the first time I cheered for Brazil.

Following the 2002 tournament I was momentarily hooked, and I tried to learn as much as possible about the sport.  That was when I learned about club football, the Premier League, the rivalry between Pele and Maradona, and Spain’s woeful record in international competition.2002 was also when I first heard about Jogo Bonito, futebol arte, and the legend of Brazil.  Ironically by 2002, Jogo Bonito had long since passed; the Brazilian game focused on strength and speed than creativity and beauty.  The rest of the world say this in 1990 but thanks to Nike marketing, I would not learn for another five years or so.  I warmed to Brazil because of  Jogo Bonito.

My interest eventually waned.  I drifted away from football because (1) I could not understand what I was reading (no Football for Dummies), and I knew no one who could explain it to me; (2) the European game was interesting but the American game was far slower and sloppier.  I knew of no channel that showed the European game; and (3) Philadelphia did not yet have a team, and the only American teams I cheer for are Philadelphia teams.

In 2006 I caught the World Cup fever again.  Thanks to his status as the world’s greatest player, I focused on Ronaldinho.  I could easily find highlights on the Internet, and I watched as much of Ronaldinho as I could.  I was hooked; through Ronaldinho I found FC Barcelona, his club at the time, and the best club in Europe.  Because I had lost touch with football in 2002, I had thought that Barcelona was just the second best team in Spain after the Real Madrid juggernaut.  In 2006, I learned about Barça’s success and its history (the Barça good/Real Madrid evil version; it would be a few more years before I learned the more rounded picture.)  Although I no longer have illusions about Barça as the team of the angels, it is still my team and always will be.  Years after Ronaldinho squandered his talent and left for Milan, I still root only for Barcelona.

I cannot profess the same devotion for Brazil.  For four years they were my second team behind the United States.  The more I watched Brazil though, the more my feelings changed.  In qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, Brazil were very successful but not spectacular.  Individual players could do amazing things, but as a whole the team was more respectable than lovable.  I was especially annoyed at Robinho; his blatant diving was aggravating and his juvenile antics at his club were disgusting.  Moreover, I can never love any team that has Kaka; his holier-than-thou evangelizing grates every one of my nerves.

I cannot stay mad at Brazil forever.  I feel a connection to that country, despite never having been there.  The people are beautiful, the movies are enjoyable, the music is spectacular, and the language is sensual. I also have distant relatives in Brazil, and I would like to meet them one day.  Following the 2010 failure, Brazil are starting to play creatively again, which is very nice to see.  Given that the next World Cup is in Brazil, the squad will face more enormous pressure in 2014.  The last time the World Cup was held in Brazil (1950) the national team lost in the (de facto) final.  The nation mourned as if struck by an actual disaster.  The 2014 Brazil national team will need all the support it can get.

IV.  The Thrills and Dangers of Flair

I am a Barcelona fan and a United States National Team fan.  Beyond that I root for teams that play beautiful football.  It is a loyalty to the game than to any particular one team.  “Beautiful” football means a clean, high scoring game, intricate passing and dribbling, and goals that belong on a highlight reel.  Brazil played like that from 1958-1970 and again in 1982.  Despite not playing that way anymore, Brazil are still considered the foremost example of that style.  Conversely, a team that is associated with a defensive style of play can also never shake it.  Italy is most famous for using an ultra-defensive style called Catenaccio, which literally means door bolt and is designed for the lifeless 1-0 win.  Although true Catenaccio died by the early 1970’s, it is forever associated with the Italians (although it was originated by the Swiss and brought to Italy by an Argentine.)  The Italians national team today does not help its cause.  Every tournament, the Italians employ an overly defensive style, but with so much diving, fouling, and play acting that they are more spaghetti western villains or a bel canto divas than footballers.

Since 2008, that team that played the most interesting and beautiful football has been Spain.  I was ecstatic to see Spain finally win the World Cup in 2010 and end decades of national frustration.  The Spanish win was more than a joy; it was a relief.  Football fans, particularly those who follow the international game, know that the best team does not always win the World Cup.  In fact, there is a running list of magnificent losers.  This list is topped by the three most famous sides not to have won–Hungary 1954, Netherlands 1974, and Brazil 1982.

The 1954 Hungarian team conquered all who played them.  Most famously, they humiliated the English 7-1 at Wembly, the first non-British side to beat the English on home soil (and then beat them again 6-3 in Hungary.)  En route to the World Cup final Hungary became the first team to beat reigning champion Uruguay at the World Cup.  A Magyar victory seemed inevitable, but they lost to West Germany (a team they decimated earlier in the tournament) in the final round.  So unlikely was the German victory that it is referred to as “The Miracle of Berne”.

The Dutch team of 1974 was similarly legendary and even more beloved.  Led by the great Johan Cruyff, the team introduced “Total Football” to the world, a style that involved players taking over their teammates positions at any time so that formations were constantly in flux.  Like Hungary, the Dutch–in a fit of hubris–lost to West Germany in the final round.  Although the Dutch stopped playing Total Football decades ago, the style is so associated with the Oranje that most (lazy) writers call any attacking Dutch play Total Football.  The 2010 Dutch team disappointed the world by choosing a thuggish defensive football over a free-flowng attack.  To fans of the Dutch teams of the 1970’s, the 2010 squad betrayed their heritage.

The 1982 Brazilians were the quintessential practitioners of  Jogo Bonito/futebol arte.  Even their names were cool: Zico, Falcao, Socrates.  They played free-flowing attacking football with lots of crowd-pleasing tricks.  To say they had flair is an understatement.  As they swept through the early rounds, their victory seemed a foregone conclusion, but mid-tournament they lost to Italy in one of the great World Cup matches.  Sadly, this was the match that destroyed Jogo Bonito.  No Brazil team since the 1982 squad had as much panache and élan, and most likely none ever will again.

Given this history, I was terrified for months that Spain 2010 would be added to the list of beloved losers.  All the signs pointed to a loss.  First, Spain always failed at the World Cup.  Reasons given for this were as poetic as a Quixotic national ethos and as prosaic as the players could not get along with each other (the ethnic and regional rivalries in the Spanish dressing room mirror those that fracture Spain.)  The 2008 European Championship win, which was nothing short of magnificent, was hoped to be a turning point, but by the World Cup, most people (including in Spain) thought a solid Brazil would beat a stylish Spain.

Second, Spain played by using a specific style called tiki-taka.  Tiki-taka is a nonsense phrase that describes a style in which teammates exchange the ball to one another via rapid short passes, thereby dominating possession and creating a quick tempo.  It is a game of patience as well as speed, as the offensive constantly probes for weaknesses in the opposition defense.  Tiki-taka is also Barcelona’s style, no surprise given that so many of the Spanish first team played for Barcelona or trained at the Barcelona youth academy.  The problem is that a distinct attacking style does not necessarily usually translate into victory at the international level.  Teams with an attacking style garnered but generally few titles.  Argentina’s early sides had La Nuestra, Hungary had its domineering style, Austria’s Wunderteam of the early 1930’s pioneered in attacking play in Europe but came in fourth in the 1934 World Cup, the Netherlands had Total Football, Brazil 1982 had Jogo Bonito.  The exception to this rule was Brazil in 1958, 1962, and 1970, but those Brazil teams had Pele,  Garrincha, or both.

Why do attacking styles fail at the World Cup?  If I had to guess I would say there are two reasons: (1) Attacking requires a stronger team both in terms of players and overall ability to work together.  International teams are made up of players drawn from multiple clubs (sometimes worldwide) who play together only a few times a year.  International teams are not as good as clubs because players do not have the same time together.  (2) Styles change in football as opposing teams uncover exploitable weaknesses.  Styles start at the club level, and by the time a World Cup arrives coaches know how to structure defenses against these attacking styles.  International tournaments, by virtue of being so short, do not allow for tinkering, especially with an attacking game.

Third, defense usually wins the World Cup.  When Spain lost to Switzerland in the first match, it looked like the World  Cup was about to claim another victim of style.  Every team that Spain faced, with the exception of Chile and possibly Germany, chose to concentrate on defense and counterattack.  All of Spain’s matches were low scoring for that reason.  The commentators missed an important part about Spain’s game–although Spain played an attacking style, tiki-taka in inherently defensive.  True, Spain were constantly on the attack, but there is no counterattack if Spain keeps possession.  Opponents could only defend, not score themselves.   Holland came closest to disrupting Spain’s style in the final by forgetting the ball and attacking Spanish players.  It was awful to watch.

Ironically, Spain’s style owes its existence to Holland.  Barcelona plays tiki-taka.  Barcelona is managed by Pep Guardiola, who, in his Barcelona days, played for and was mentored by Johan Cruyff, the prophet of Total Football.  Cruyff’s arrival at Barcelona as coach (he played there too) was the beginning of Barcelona’s Renaissance as a stylish team.  Before Guardiola, the Dutchman Frank Rijkaard managed Barcelona.  Rijkaard’s first played football at Ajax Amsterdam, the ground zero of Total Football.  When Cruyff played at Ajax in the early 1970’s, he led them the club to three straight European Cup victories.   In his final seasons at Ajax, Rijkaard too was managed by Cruyff.

Spain’s dominance is ending.  They have had a tremendous run, and will go down as one of the great international sides.  Bad losses to Argentina and Portugal show that Spain’s run may have ended.  Although tiki-taka may no longer win tournaments, the resurgence of the stylish attacking game as spearheaded by Spain is showing itself in the most unlikely of places.  At the 2010 World Cup, Germany played an elegant attacking game.  Over seven matches Germany were a joy to watch.  Should they continue to play like this, I will gladly root for them at Euro 2012.

That any non-German could love Germany is surprising.  That Germany play a beautiful style is downright shocking. Germany is the quintessential solid team, respected for their mechanical work ethic and domineering style, but never loved. Germany are also the most consistent performer in the world game.  Germany/West Germany won three World Cups and three European Championship, which is impressive enough.  At the World Cup, no team–not even Brazil–has Germany’s consistency.  In seventeen appearances, Germany won three times, came in second place four times, and made the semifinals five other times.  The last time Germany did not make the quarterfinals was 1978.  The only time Germany lost in the first round was 1938.

Germany’s beautiful game reminds the football world of how fluid national styles become in an age of globalization.

V. Don’t Cry for Argentina

Of all the national sides, I am most ambivalent about Argentina.  Since 2006 when the team shamefully started a fight with the Germany after being eliminated by them, I have rooted against Argentina.  That particular loss was difficult for Argentina.  In the group stages they played like the were destined to win while their rival Brazil (who, as we were told over and over was full of the best players in the world) played without passion.  Argentina outplayed Germany, the home team, for 120 minutes but could not break down the German defense.  Poor coaching decisions took their toll, and Germany won on penalty kicks in front of an ecstatic home crowd.  Some Argentine players started a brawl, which humiliated both teams. Argentina’s coach, José Peckerman resigned as a result.  Right then and there I decided I could never be an Argentina fan.

The truth is though I cannot completely hate Argentina the way I can Italy.  I rooted against the Albiceleste with satisfaction when it looked like they could miss the World Cup.  I especially wanted them to lose once Maradona came in as the national coach.  When they were eliminated 4-0 by Germany (again), I practically danced for joy.  On the other hand, I have difficulty rooting against a team from a nation that is so so progressive on LGBT rights.  Moreover, as a Barcelona fan, I cannot in good conscience root against Lionel Messi.  In 2010 my distaste for Maradona won out–El Diego makes himself so easy to hate–but now that he is gone, and Messi is still there, the balance is starting to shift.

Argentina has been a powerhouse in world football for decades.  They were runners up to reigning champions Uruguay at the 1928 Olympics and lost again to Uruguay in final of the first World Cup in 1930.  The Italian side that won the 1934 World Cup played Argentinian expatriates (who played in for Argentina in 1930) whose ancestors had left Italy for Argentina.  Argentina and Uruguay pioneered the South American style that enchanted Western European audiences–an attacking style that showed off passing, dribbling, quick reflexes, creative thinking, and dazzling individual talent.  Argentina’s stylish attacking play (called La Nuestra) found its apogee in the legendary River Plate side of the early 1940’s, La Máquina (a side perhaps more mythical than anything else–the five forwards who made up La Máquina only played together about 18 times.)

On the heels of La Máquina, River Plate produced Alfredo Di Stéfano, another candidate for greatest player of all time (my pick) and the icon of Real Madrid.  Di Stéfano briefly dominated in Argentina before a football strike led him and fellow players to leave for Colombia where they essentially built Colombian football.  Barcelona tried to sign Di Stéfano in 1953, but due to very controversial circumstances Di Stéfano ended up at arch-rival Real Madrid.  It was there that Di Stéfano reached his apex.  Already dominant in La Liga, Di Stéfano and Real Madrid essentially built the pan-European game by winning the first five European Cups (the forerunner of the UEFA Champions League.)  Two things keep Di Stéfano out of the Pele/Maradona debate: (1) a poor international record; and (2) lack of television exposure.  Both of these strikes against Di Stéfano boil down to bad timing.  Television coverage as we know it did not come about until after Di Stéfano retired (the 1970 World Cup was the first time that tournament was broadcast in color.)  Di Stéfano was a just plain unfortunate in international play.  There were no World Cups held in the 1940’s.  Argentina did not enter the 1950 World Cup, FIFA declared Di Stéfano ineligible for the 1954 World Cup.  By 1958 Di Stéfano played for Spain but Spain failed to qualify for the World Cup.  Di Stéfano led Spain to qualification in 1962 World Cup, but an injury kept him out of the tournament.  Di Stéfano retired from international football shortly thereafter.

Following the 1940’s Argentina, while successful in South America, underperformed at the World Cup or did not appear at all.  To add insult to injury, neighboring Brazil surpassed Argentina.  Part of this was Argentina’s own fault; while Uruguay fielded black players as early 1924 and Brazil also integrated early, Argentina maintained teams as white as any found in Western Europe.  (Race is a touchy but important subject in world football that requires far more room than I can give it in this post.  Suffice to say that just because Brazil and Uruguay integrated early does not mean that racism vanished there.  Nor is racism simply black and white.  Argentina has a long and unfortunate history of prejudice toward mestizos and immigrants from neighboring Latin American countries.  In 2006, the Argentina was led by a proudly Jewish coach in Peckerman, and fielded a Jewish left wingback named Juan Pablo Sorín who was deeply ashamed of being Jewish.)

As Argentina continued to fail on the world stage, the pleasing but now ineffective La Nuestra associated with River Plate was replaced by the more brutal style (called anti-football) most associated with South American villains Estudiantes de la Plata, who won the Copa Libertadores in 1968, 1969, and 1970.  At the 1966 World Cup, Argentina and England’s match produced enough bad blood in both nations to fuel a bitter rivalry that continues to this day—although that dislike intensified into hatred after the Falklands/Malvinas War.

In 1978, Argentina hosted the World Cup for the first time.  At the time Argentina was ruled by a military junta.  It goes without saying that totalitarian regimes do not protect human rights.  FIFA has an appalling human rights track record (that is why their campaign against racism, no matter how noble, also rings hollow), but even by FIFA standards, allowing the World Cup to proceed in Argentina was a horrific decision–a move that equalled allowing Mussolini’s Italy to host the 1934 tournament.  Under dubious circumstances, Argentina won the tournament over a Cruyff-less Netherlands.  The victory is suspect thanks to possible junta involvement and Argentinian gamesmanship, but the 1978 Argentina squad is fondly remember thanks to great players and a lovely attacking style instilled by football philosopher/leftist coach César Luis Menotti.  Although not a return to La Nuestra, Menotti understood the spirit of the old style.

Menotti omitted a teenage Maradona from his squad, and that ate at future star for years to come.  In 1982, Menotti gave Maradona his chance, but to no avail as first Maradona met his match in Italy’s Claudio Gentile and then Brazil’s team tore apart their traditional rivals.

By 1986 Argentina’s junta had ended, Menotti was gone (replaced by Carlos Bilardo, former Estudiantes villain and right-wing doctor), and the national side was, by all accounts, mediocre.  Maradona, the one superstar of the team, almost singlehandedly willed Argentina to a World Cup triumph.  In the match against England he scored both the famous “Goal of the Century” and the infamous “Hand of God” goal.  The 1986 tournament secured Maradona’s legacy as both a god and a demon depending on which nation you lived in.  What Maradona achieved with Argentina he repeated on a lesser scale with his new Italian club Napoli leading them to two Serie A titles and a UEFA Cup title.

From this the Maradona/Pele debate was born.  Pele won three World Cups (except that he was injured and barely played in most of the 1962 Cup—Garrincha carried Brazil to victory), but he was the superstar of great teams.  Maradona won one World Cup, but he won it in spite of his team not because of it.  Maradona played (and won) for clubs in Europe while Pele only played in Brazil (discounting his NASL years which were a glorified retirement.)  However, when Pele played in Brazil Brazilians rarely went abroad so the competition was fiercer (although a national league did not exist.)  Pele won two Copa Libertadores with his club Santos while Maradona’s only international club victory was in Europe’s second tier tournament.  Just as Pele benefitted from television coverage that his predecessors did not have, Maradona benefitted from more comprehensive coverage that Pele did not have during his best years.  The arguments go round and round with no answer.  The debate is tiresome and fraught with nationalism.  (The greatest ever debate also generally overlooks defenders, a thankless job in football.)

What is not debatable is that Pele controlled his image far better than Maradona.  While Maradona’s teammates loved him, Pele’s merely respected him as a player.  Nevertheless, whatever Pele’s personal failings, he has largely smothered them through the image of himself that he puts out: smiling Brazilian ambassador of football, specifically futebol arte.  Maradona has no such self-restraint.  He is a creature of contradictions driven by pure id.  He was a superstar who could not play with other great players yet is beloved by his teammate.  He is an avowed leftist who talks about oppression, yet he pals around with dictators and tyrants.  He wants what is best for the Argentina national team yet would not step aside gracefully long after it was clear that he was not that solution–part of the problem in fact.  Maradona’s personality is a very difficult to tolerate, but to Argentinians he is a deity.  There is actually a church of Maradona in Argentina.  Both Pele and Maradona show that the kind of person you are can be overlooked if you played a great game of football.

VI. A Messi Sport

For years top Argentinian players fell under the weight of the title “The Next Maradona.”  In that context it is no surprise that Argentina has not won a senor title since 1993 despite the steady stream of talented youth.  It virtually certain now that Maradona’s true successor has emerged in Lionel Messi.

Messi was born in Rosario.  At the age of 11 he was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency, and his family could not afford treatments.  FC Barcelona, aware of his talent, brought Messi and his family to Spain, and the club paid for his medical treatment.  Messi trained at La Masia, Barcelona’s famed youth academy which also produced legends such as Pep Guardiola, Xavi Hernandez, Andrés Iniesta, and Cesc Fabregas (among others).  Messi synthesized his South American creativity with the European structure he learned  at La Masia to become the best player in the world and the sharpest sword in the attack that won Barcelona its historic Sextuple.  Every match he plays adds to his legend.

What Messi is not, at least not yet, is a leader.  At 23 this is understandable.  The only club he knows is Barcelona which has formed a structure he fits well into.  Messi can create chances and goals out of nothing, but he needs the support of a dominant midfield and the constant rhythm of tiki-taka.  Take these factors out, and Messi’s sting is not so potent.  Maradona, as Argentina manager, could not understand that and saw Messi as fulfilling his role.  In 2010, Maradona did not understand that Messi could not do it alone, especially against an organized German counterattack.  Messi had to be everywhere at once, an impossible feat for anyone, but especially one marked as closely as he was.  Germany exploited each one of Argentina’s weaknesses, and the result was utter humiliation.

VII. World Cup 2014 Fever Begins

On November 17, 2010, Lionel Messi beat a senior level Brazil squad for the the first in his career.  Despite Brazil’s technical superiority, Messi worked his magic at the very end the way he has done so many times for Barcelona.  His goal was a thing of beauty, but beautiful goals are normal for Messi.

How did Argentina succeed?  Argentina’s new manager Sergio Batista is trying to mold the team to suit Messi’s needs–something Maradona could never learn.  Although the team will be not be as skilled as Barcelona, it need not be for international play.  All Argentina need to do is give Messi the space and support he requires to work his magic.  Batista, who coached Messi and Argentina to the 2008 Olympic gold medal, understands this, or at least appears to.  Messi will be 27 at the next World Cup.  It will be held in South America where no European team has won before.

If Brazil is not careful, 1950 could repeat itself.

Music I listened to while writing this post: World of Tears “Don’t Look Now”;  Gypsy (Original Broadway Cast) “Baby June and Her Newsboys”; Zoltan Kodaly “Háry János Suite” Entrance of the Emperor and His Court; Roger Cicero “Frauen regier’n die Welt”; Johann Sebastian Bach “Orchestral Suite #4 In D, BWV 1069”  Overture; Fleetwood Mac “Everywhere”; Franz Joseph Haydn “Symphony #85 In B Flat, H 1/85, ‘La Reine'” Adagio-Vivace; Carl Nielsen “Rhapsody Overture: An Imaginary Journey to the Faeroe Islands”; Modest Mussorgsky “Pictures at an Exhibition” Promenade 2; Alessandro Marcello “Concerto for Oboe, Strings & Basso Continuo in D Minor, Op. 1” Presto; Europe “The Final Countdown”; Ma Rainey “See See Rider Blues”; HMS Pinafore “Farewell, My Own!”; Sergei Rachmaninoff “Piano Concerto #1 In F Sharp Minor, Op. 1” Vivace; Värttinä “Pihi Neito”; Johann Sebastian Bach “Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 – Variatio 24 Canone all’Ottava. À 1 Clav.; The Jacksons “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground); Max Bruch “Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op.26” Adagio; Sergei Rachmaninoff “Piano Concerto #3 In D Minor, Op. 30” Finale, Alla Breve; Enrique Iglesias “Be With You”; Miriam Makeba “Pata Pata”; Sarah Vaughan “Goodnight My Love”; Arnold Schoenberg “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 42” Andante;  Giuseppe Verdi “Otello” Già nella notte; Dana International “Diva”; Howlin Wolf “I Ain’t Superstitious”; Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov “Sadko, Op. 5” Ho! My Faithful Company (sung by Vasili Damaev); Johannes Brahms “German Requiem, Op. 45” Herr, Lehre Doch Mich; Frédéric Chopin “Mazurka #23 In D, Op. 33/2, CT 73”; Mika “Grace Kelly”; Aaron Copland “Appalachian Spring” Subito Allegro; Chicago Broadway Revival Cast “Mister Cellophane” (sung by Joel Grey); John Coltrane/Classic Quartet “One Down, One Up”; John Coltrane/Classic Quartet “Your Lady”; Jennifer Warnes “Right Time of the Night”; Dusty Springfield “In The Winter”; Johann Sebastian Bach “Cello Suite #2 In D Minor, BWV 1008” Menuetto; Rosa Passos “Duas Contas” Virginia Rodrigus “Uma História de Ifá”; Janis Joplin & Big Brother and the Holding Company “Down on Me’: Tanja Solnik “Zing Faygeleh Zing”; Camille Saint-Saëns “Carnival of the Animals” Fossils; Charlie Christian “As Long as I Live”; Johann Sebastian Bach “Concerto No. 3 in G major BWV1048” Allegro; Ludwig van Beethoven “Piano Sonata #3 In C, Op. 2/3” Scherzo: Allegro; Nina Simone “To Love Somebody”; Gioachino Rossini “William Tell Overture”; The Four Tops “Left With A Broken Heart”; Gyorgi Ligeti “Sonata for Cello Solo” Dialogo; Three Dog Night “Black and White”; Harry Belafonte “Sylvie”; Enya “One by One”; Ella Fitzgerald “How High the Moon”; Johann Sebastian Bach “Magnificat In D, BWV 243” Gloria Patri; Ludwig van Beethoven”String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131: Allegro.